A lot is being made right now about whether or not the young people who attend the March for Life genuinely care about the pro-life cause. Critics remark students just want “to get a free trip to goof off.” I will admit social incentives played a significant role in my decision to go to my first March for Life nine years ago. Praise God that he can still use that for his glory.

In January 2010, I was a 19-year-old freshman at Florida State University. While I certainly considered myself both Catholic and pro-life, I was also navigating the tricky waters of how I could both practice my Catholic faith and still be socially accepted by my secular peers. I wanted to be seen as Catholic, but not “too Catholic”; pro-life, but not “too pro-life.”

Meanwhile, my best friend and college roommate, Tiffany, had quickly gotten involved with FSU’s Catholic Student Union earlier in the school year. While I was intrigued by the student group myself, I decided I wanted to keep CSU at a slight distance for the time being.

As the first fall semester began to wind to a close and winter neared, the Catholic Student Union announced a trip to Washington, D.C., for the March for Life. I had passed up opportunities to go to this major pro-life event in high school: “too expensive, too much travel time, too cold,” I thought. But this time around, when Tiffany signed up, I knew my only alternative would result in spending the weekend in my residence hall all alone. “Perhaps,” I thought, “going would give me a better window into what life among the Catholic Student Union faithful would look like.” I added my name to the list.

The January day came to leave for the March for Life, and about 50 students and a priest loaded up into a charter bus and set off for the nation’s capital. The uncomfortable ride lasted at least 15 hours; what we lacked in sleep, we made up for in laughter. Driving through the night, we arrived in D.C. in the early morning and walked straight into what was then the Verizon Center. Now renamed the Capitol One Arena, it is here the Archdiocese of Washington hosts the annual “Youth Rally” and “Mass for Life.”

Approximately 17,000 Catholic teenagers and young adults filled the stadium in spiritual preparation before the March for Life. The sports arena was transformed into a place of prayer; the stands became our pews. Thousands of young Catholics reclined together and prayed the Rosary, listened to pro-life talks, and cheered loudly during the rally. It was there I was first struck by the sheer number of people — thousands of young adults so joyfully supporting the pro-life cause. I remember thinking so clearly here, “I am not alone.”

We then had the opportunity for confession before Mass. One by one, students filed in to receive the sacrament. Being able to receive reconciliation before I received the Lord in the Eucharist was a gift; I could be a purified vessel for him. When Mass concluded, the thousands upon thousands of students streamed out of the arena and into the streets. We were now in proper formation to be soldiers for Christ in what is a spiritual battle; we were carrying the Lord with us through the wounded world.

As our group made our way to the National Mall, where the March for Life Rally would kick off, I remembered I never ate breakfast and didn’t get a good night’s sleep. I could also no longer ignore the biting January cold. I let out a groan in complaint, and a friend’s mother was quick to respond with the classic Catholic line, “Offer it up.” This was no field trip, no weekend vacation with my friends; this was a penitential pilgrimage offered for the souls of the unborn.

We reached the rally, and, again, I was struck by the massive crowd. While I had heard of the March for Life back home, it wasn’t until that moment I was able to more fully grasp its far-reaching impact. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people now crowded the landmark park. The rally speakers took to the microphone. I, quite honestly, do not remember any specific speaker or speech. It is only in researching the 2010 March for Life now that I know I heard from the late March for Life founder, Nellie Gray, religious and pro-life leaders, and a long line of lawmakers, including then-U.S. Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana. What I do remember from the March for Life Rally was the great camaraderie in the crowd; the special and intense bonding between new friends that happens when you experience something great together. It was a bond that would be foundational to my remaining college experience.

My freshman self returned to Tallahassee with a greater sense of identity and clarity for what was important. I could no longer be lukewarm when speaking about the pro-life issue — not after I had journeyed, cheered and marched for the unborn. If I could loudly cheer in support of life among my like-minded peers, I could not be so hypocritical as to be silent on the topic elsewhere. I grew, over those four years, stronger and more confident in my faith. If I ever felt marginalized, I would simply recall what struck me at the Verizon Center that winter morning: I am not alone.

A little over three years later, the Monday after my college graduation, I accepted a job with EWTN. I would move to none other than Washington, D.C. — the very city I traveled to for the March for Life. Working at the EWTN Global Catholic Network only strengthened my pro-life views. I grew in my knowledge after conducting frequent interviews on the topic in my previous role as producer and reporter for EWTN News Nightly. And today, as host and producer for EWTN Pro-Life Weekly, it’s the issue that consumes my day.

When you live in D.C., you cannot escape a conversation without someone asking you about “what you do.” For me, that means I cannot escape a conversation with a stranger without that person learning about my faith and stance on abortion. And in the digital age, it just takes a simple Google search to see my pro-life work and even some attacks from abortion advocates themselves. It’s a good thing God doesn’t reveal what our future holds for us, or else my freshman self would have been a bit alarmed at my reality today.

Nine years after attending my first March for Life, I hosted our network’s coverage of the event from our D.C. studio. I had the honor of interviewing U.S. representatives, senators, White House officials and top pro-life leaders and thinkers from the anchor chair about their support for the largest annual human-rights demonstration. I watched the sea of young people take to the streets from my monitor screen this year, and I couldn’t help but be in awe of God’s goodness. As a student, I offered him apathy on the life issue, and he transformed it into passion. I gave him one Yes to speak up for life, and he multiplied it into many opportunities.

 Catherine Hadro writes from Washington.

She is the host and producer of EWTN Pro-Life Weekly.